I can’t say it came as a great shock when I read director and cowriter Pierre Salvadori’s remark, “The first movie that ever struck me was a comedy—Heaven Can Wait (1943)—which, for me, was watching the perfect movie,” in the press notes for his Priceless (2006), a slightly cynical romantic comedy that opens locally this Friday. There’s a similarity between Ernst Lubitsch’s classic comedy and Salvadori’s film, but there’s more Lubitsch to Priceless than that one Lubitsch film.
Priceless may up the ante of the Lubitschian blend of cynicism and sentiment: Lubitsch never made a movie where the heroine and, later, the hero both use their bodies and powers of seduction for personal gain and advancement. He did, however, spend a considerable amount of his screen career winking at notions of sexual morality—ranging from adultery to snagging a rich husband to a ménage à trois. Priceless uses a classic-comedy premise—mistaken identity—and trades on the personalities and good looks of its players in luxurious settings.
In the case of Priceless, we have the gold-digging Irène (the luminous Audrey Tautou) stepping out on her sleeping elderly boyfriend for some late-night fun in the hotel bar. There, she mistakes bartender Jean (Gad Elmaleh, The Valet) for a guest—and he plays along, finally spiriting her away to the unoccupied royal suite. It’s a momentary indiscretion that comes home to roost a year later when they bump into each other again and Jean resumes his masquerade, leading to the couple’s discovery and the elderly boyfriend Jacques (Vernon Dobtcheff, Before Sunset) breaking off his engagement to Irène—and reclaiming her engagement ring.
When Irène discovers that Jean is a hotel employee and not a wealthy catch, she heads off to Nice—armed with her little book of potential victims—in hopes of a new sugar daddy. What she doesn’t count on is Jean—feeling guilty and just a little love struck—following. No sooner has she set up a possible mark than Jean queers the deal by hanging around, so Irène punishes him by accepting his advances—very expensively. Soon Irène has hooked up with another prospect, Gilles (Jacques Spiesser, My Best Friend), and Jean is broke and facing arrest over the hotel bill. Enter the no-longer-young Madeleine (Marie-Christine Adam, Le Divorce), who pays Jean’s debts and moves him into her rooms.
The arrangement might be agreeable, but Jean needs coaching from Irène in order to understand how these things work to the kept man’s—or woman’s—best advantage. Soon the pupil is outmaneuvering his teacher—as attested to by 30,000-euros worth of wristwatch. Of course, more is happening than that, and yes, it’s exactly what you think: Right down to a final shot you can probably predict from the distance of at least 20 minutes. (Well, after all, the ending might be borrowed from Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise (1932) or Design for Living (1933).) But Priceless doesn’t always get where it’s going the way you expect, and even if it did, it’s done with such class, charm and grace that it wouldn’t matter all that much.
While Priceless stands quite on its own as a breath of champagne on a warm summer night, it’s hard not to compare it to what has been passing of late as romantic comedy—things like Made of Honor and Sex and the City—and the comparison does the Hollywood product no favors. While Priceless is cheerfully amoral, it’s also genuinely romantic. Scratch its veneer of cynicism, and you’ll find something warm and sentimental underneath. (The only English-language effort of recent vintage is the British Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day.) Scratch the Hollywood product, and you’ll find only more cynicism. That—along with two genuinely appealing lead performers and real style in the direction—makes all the difference. It’s also the reason to beat a path to this marvelous confection. Rated PG-13 for sexual content, including nudity.